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Convince us

A skill center may be just what thecity needs, but voters need persuading

Medford educators have done a thorough job of convincing themselves and parts of the business community that a high school skill center should be part of the city's future, but we suspect they still have some work to do to convince the public.

The school district in November will ask voters to OK a &

36;79 million bond measure ' adding about &

36;150 a year in taxes to the average Medford home ' to construct the skill center plus a new middle school and to pay for minor remodeling at North and South high schools.

There's little question that Medford needs one of the big-ticket items, the middle school. Enrollment is growing, and Hedrick and McLoughlin junior high schools are crowded with seventh- and eighth-graders. The district wants to use the new school, along with Hedrick and McLoughlin, for sixth through eighth grades, allowing it to free up space in also-growing elementary schools. It's an obvious and straightforward solution.

But what of the skill center?

A school unlike any now operating in Southern Oregon, it would house Medford's high school vocational programs, everything from computer repair to nursing to cooking, moving those classes from North and South to the new building.

All students, however, would remain enrolled at either North or South. The district would bus them to the skill center for vocational classes. The center would be designed to handle as many as 1,000 students at a time.

The people behind the proposal ' and it has worked its way through much staff and community discussion over several years ' say it is the one plan able to address both Medford's need for vocational training and crowding at North and South.

Without it, they say, Medford will have so many high school students that double shifts may be the only alternative. With it, they paint a picture of vocational offerings comprehensive enough to turn the most reluctant student into marketable material.

Maybe so, but the public needs to hear more.

First, would building the skill center adequately address crowding at the high schools, if students remained enrolled there for their main courses and were bused out only for vocational programs? Would busing be efficient or waste time? Could schedules be coordinated so the building was used all day, or would it sit empty part of the time?

Are the district's cost estimates realistic? We know it plans to spend &

36;39 million to build the school, and officials say operation would run about &

36;500,000 a year, less than at other schools. But Medford educators who toured a skill center in Washington found it cost &

36;700 more per student to operate and that its director had to raise private money to help fund it. Are the district's estimates realistic?

What about effectiveness? On its face, a center capable of training high school students so they're ready to jump into the work force sounds like it could have huge potential for Medford. But the community really knows very little about skill centers. What do statistics show? Tell us.

Finally, why not a third high school? Is it, as administrators have suggested, simply a fear of dividing Medford three ways instead of two? Is it, as others claim, a matter of protecting high school football programs? There must be a good reason this option is off the table. We'd like to hear it.

A request this size would be big in any election, but the hit is potentially even more significant this fall, when Rogue Community College plans to ask taxpayers countywide for &

36;40 million. These two requests come on top of recent voter approval of &

36;39 million for libraries and &

36;17 million for a juvenile justice center. In other words, our tax bills are growing.

That shouldn't diminish the importance of making schools suitable for a growing community. But it does mean educators face a bigger job than usual in explaining themselves to voters. The skill center plan may be just right for Medford, but that case hasn't been made well enough to the public yet.

The right call

Medford Mayor Lindsay Berryman did the right thing last week when she broke a tie and authorized a public hearing on a living wage ordinance.

We have supported holding the hearing, while noting that the ordinance would amount to little more than a gesture. The city already pays employees and contractors more than the &

36;10.75 an hour that would be specified in the ordinance.

Council members voting against a hearing said the information had already been presented, and that there is little public support for the proposal. Members favoring a hearing said the council had heard only one side of the issue.

If there is any indication that council members need to hear more information on a subject, they should err in favor of openness and hold hearings to adequately present issues to the public and the council as well.

There is no harm in holding a hearing, even if information has been presented before. The 4-4 council vote and the mayor's tie-breaking vote indicate that city officials want more information on the subject.